A chance for three premierships in as many years — not bad for a netball team that was only formed a little more than three years ago. Plus a rugby league club that’s won three minor premierships in the last four years — and they’re based in the AFL stronghold of Melbourne.
- The Melbourne Storm is the major owner of the Sunshine Coast Lightning netball club
- The Lightning won the Super Netball premiership in their debut season
- Both clubs say their united corporate culture has led to ongoing success, on and off the field
This is what Super Netball’s Sunshine Coast Lightning and the NRL’s Melbourne Storm have done in their respective codes. But that’s just what’s happening on the court or playing field for this successful sporting partnership.
“Queensland’s a pretty special place for our sports club … we’ve got two rugby league feeder teams, we’ve got a junior [rugby league] academy and it’s really gone from strength to strength in that market,” said Storm chief executive Dave Donaghy.
The Storm is a major owner of the Lightning with the University of the Sunshine Coast.
In 2016, the Storm grasped an opportunity to have a presence in the Super Netball competition, and the Sunshine Coast region, as the Lightning quickly became a “key part” of the Melbourne Storm group.
“That’s why we didn’t call them Storm, we called them the Lightning — we wanted to given them their own identity,” Donaghy said.
The Melbourne Storm claimed The J.J. Giltinan Shield after winning the NRL’s minor premiership in 2019. (Twitter: Melbourne Storm)
“They’re their own success story in their own right.”
On performance alone, both clubs have been the dominant force in their codes. But a major reason why the franchise has experienced sustained success is its inclusive culture.
For Lightning chief executive Danielle Smith, who is also group operating officer and board director at the Melbourne Storm, it’s that culture that’s underpinned the sporting success achieved by both teams.
“Our players are very happy players and when they’re happy and comfortable, day in and day out, that’s when they perform at their best,” Smith said.
“We put a lot of focus on culture.”
Despite the distance separating the two clubs — around 1,900 kilometres if you stick to the Pacific Highway — there is a close working relationship between the players and staff.
Phone calls between the chief executives is usually a daily occurrence, while the few opportunities for players and coaches to attend matches and share knowledge is frequently seized upon.
“If I hear of something that might help the Storm, I’m on the phone to Dave to tell him about it and likewise if he’s thinking of the same thing,” Smith explained.
“When the Lightning was playing its qualifying final, it was about an hour before the Storm match and all the talk in the Storm changeroom was what the score was in the Lightning match because you can’t have phones in the changeroom.”
For 36-year-old Donaghy and 46-year-old Smith, the duo are constantly looking to improve their “unique and exciting” sporting partnership.
“Both of our organisations certainly have a one-club mentality,” Donaghy said.
“We’ve got a little saying around the Storm — if it’s important to one of us it’s important to all of us, and it’s so true.”
Chief executive Danielle Smith (left) and coach Noeline Taurua have been the driving forces behind the Lightning’s success. (Supplied: Eyes Wide Open Images)
In recruiting, the Sunshine Coast club, the only regional team in the League, borrowed a page from the Storm’s playbook.
Just as the Storm built a side around its spine of Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater, the Lightning did the same.
“We built a squad that had a real strong defender, a really strong midcourter and a really strong attacker,” Smith said.
Geva Mentor, Laura Langman and Caitlin Bassett were the Lightning’s big three and it led to instant success — a premiership in their debut season.
And like the Storm’s mentor Craig Bellamy, the Lightning went after one of netball’s most revered coaches, Noeline Taurua.
“The way they both treat their players — the players are people first and they put a lot focus on the whole person,” Smith said.
“They have a real knack for developing talent and also developing players who aren’t necessarily the most gifted but can see that they’re committed, they’re determined, they’re hard workers.
“Both of those coaches get a lot out of individual players who become great players.”
Dave Donaghy became the youngest chief executive in the NRL when he was appointed by the Storm in 2015. (Supplied)
Level playing field
Both clubs, however, have had to deal with change — particularly as a host of big-name players like Mentor, Bassett, Cronk and Slater either left their respective clubs or retired.
“When someone leaves it just means someone else gets an opportunity,” Donaghy said.
“You back in your people, your systems and culture to continue to perform and pleasingly we’ve both been able to do that this year despite some challenges.”
It’s a similar scenario at the Lightning.
“The key for me is making sure that everyone has a voice … every person has some impact with what happens on the court,” said Smith.
Volunteering and a strong community presence have helped the Sunshine Coast Lightning connect with their local fanbase. (Supplied: Eyes Wide Open Images)
Now the Lightning is on the cusp of making it three successive Super Netball premierships when they host the NSW Swifts in Sunday’s decider, in Brisbane.
“The success they’ve had has certainly given the men in our team something to aspire to and follow,” Donaghy said.
“I don’t think either side wants to let the other one down, which is great.
“For 20 years we’ve been giving young men an opportunity to have a career as a professional sportsperson and now we can say, at least for the last three years, we’re able to give young women an opportunity to carve out a career as a professional athlete, as well.”
Since Bellamy took over as coach in 2003, the Storm has only missed the NRL finals on one occasion. That was in 2010 when the club was barred from receiving premiership points due to salary cap breaches in previous seasons.
“There’s a lot that people don’t see that goes in turning out a team,” Donaghy said.
“There’s a lot of work s that goes into it. And with good people, you combine those two and you usually have a pretty successful unit.”